Multiday Hiking in New Zealand’s Backcountry, and 8 Reasons Why You Should Go Guided.

5 hikers in colourful gear walk a flat track along a valley surrounded by snowcapped hills.
Hiking up Siberia Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park.

The team here at Active Adventures are an outdoorsy bunch. Every weekend you’ll find a handful of us out there in the hills, or on the rivers, getting stuck in to New Zealand in all its natural beauty. One of our favourite ways to spend a long weekend is by grabbing a backpack, packing a toothbrush, a cooker, a few meals, and a sleeping bag, and heading for one of the 950 huts dotted all over the country. Here we’ll talk about spending time in the backcountry on overnight ‘missions’ and offer some advice on how best to tackle the great New Zealand outdoors!

A backcountry hut sits in a basin next to a large alpine lake.
Angelus Hut on the edge of Lake Angelus in Nelson Lakes National Park

Background on New Zealand’s backcountry

As kiwis, we are lucky enough to have some of the best walking in the world, in our backyards. New Zealand has hundreds of trails, amongst vast mountains, rainforests, coastline, glacial valleys, and volcanoes. Even better than that, is that those trails, and (most of) the 950 huts that serve them, are maintained by the Department of Conservation, DoC. The huts started appearing in the 1800s, and were initially a network of shelters for hunters overnighting in the hills. Today they’ve become a big contributor to tourism in New Zealand, and a part of our national identity. For us the most unique thing about hiking in New Zealand is the variety of landscapes you can immerse yourself in. That’s why we love getting out there, because every time (and every hut!) is different.

A person lays back above a glacial valley enjoying the view.
Taking a moment for reflection on the stunning Milford Track

Few people who think of New Zealand do so without thinking of Milford Sound. It’s one of the things that put this country on the map, we don’t deny it. And it is absolutely stunning in its scale, and its untouched nature. The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks – walks of stunning natural beauty, maintained by DoC, and taking in the most impressive scenery in the country. But the Great Walks are not the only walks worth doing when you get here! There are quite literally hundreds of multiday walks here, and between us, we’ve probably knocked off most of them!

Learn More About Multiday Hikes

 

Why are we so addicted to getting out there?

We’d describe our love for multiday adventures in the hills as natural, and an essential part of growing up, and living in New Zealand. Being able to get away from traffic noise, light pollution, even cell reception, in a matter of minutes from home, is a special privilege, and not one we waste. There’s something primitive about arriving at a hut under your own steam, after a tough day, and being greeted by a log fire, smiles, and a cosy bunk. When you’re in a backcountry hut, sharing the experience, and stories, with others, you’re living in the moment; the last thing you’ll worry about is work, or bills. Instead you’ll be worrying about who’s taking up the most boot space around the fire, or who’s next in line at the sink to wash their dishes. It’s a special experience, and it’s made special, in part, by the sense of achievement, but so much more than this by those you share it with.

Two pairs of boots dry on a fence at the head of a valley.
Hiking Boots drying out at Siberia Hut in Mt Aspiring National Park.

And guess what! Aside from the warm fuzzy feeling that multiday hiking gives you, there’s also a whole heap of health benefits, and not all of them are physical! Maybe that’s why people say us kiwis are such a friendly bunch?!

Benefits of going guided

Over the years our guides have learned a few tricks when it comes to overnight hiking. And we know how valuable local knowledge is. When you’re on the trail you’ll want all sorts of information about the area you’re hiking in, its history, the plants, birds, even the elevation changes for each day – your guides can share that with you. And that kind of knowledge adds so much to an experience in the backcountry. They’ll also share a few secrets to having a successful trip, the kind of things you didn’t know you needed to know, or to pack. They’ll take you to the best viewpoints for the perfect photo, and tell you how to make your own pillow – no need to pack one. All you have to do is turn your sleeping bag stuff bag inside out, and fill it with your spare clothes. Now you can rest easy!

A group of hikers and their guide stand on a ridgeline.
Guide Andy, and his group of adventurers on Robert’s Ridge in Nelson Lakes National Park.

Our guides have comprehensive training in all sorts of areas, some of which we hope they’ll never need. They’re trained in outdoor first aid, efficient radio communications, and river crossing techniques, to name a few. And they’re also backed up by an awesome Operations Team here at Active HQ. The team is always just a phone call away, anytime day or night.

Two hikers on the trail, a river running beside, and a small aircraft flying overhead.
To hike in Siberia Valley you’ll need to catch a plane in!

Everyone’s number one priority in the outdoors is safety, especially on multiday hikes. Because of its separation from other large land masses, New Zealand gets some very interesting weather. Add that to the geography of the country, and particularly the South Island, with the Southern Alps dictating weather patterns as they do, and we end up with very changeable conditions. Our local guides have spent their lives amongst those conditions, and are always prepared for four seasons in one day. They’ll approach every hike with a plan A, a plan B, and often a plan C. Rivers can change course, or rise rapidly, groups can be super keen and want to hike further, or struggling, and need to do less, or rest more often. A guide is ready for anything, they’ve seen it all before, they’ll react calmly, and smoothly, and ensure you’re comfortable and safe.

Panoramic shot of glacial lake, icebergs floating, and a group sitting on the shore.
Icebergs floating in Crucible Lake in Mt Aspiring National Park. The kind of place you wouldn’t know to visit without a guide!

Our guides are also logistical magicians, and they work in pairs. You’ll hop off the bus for a hike from A, and the bus will pick you up at B just as you arrive off the trail, or back at civilisation from the hills. They’ll also give you some advice on the best way to ensure you get a comfy bed when you arrive at each hut – if it’s not pre booked. Your guides will carry the little extras, like bug repellent, hand sanitizer, and candles too. They’ve spent heaps of time in the hills, they know exactly what you need for a perfect trip. And to top it all off, they’re masters of the backcountry cooker! You’ll be fed delicious, nutritious meals after a day’s hiking, and wake up ready to go again.

 

Why go guided recap

  1. Knowledge of flora, fauna, mountains, rivers, and viewpoints.
  2. Tricks of the trade e.g how to pack your bag, or make a pillow.
  3. Comprehensive safety training.
  4. Backed up by an Operations Team.
  5. Experience of the conditions – plan Bs+Cs in place.
  6. Logistics – arranging transport, organising beds, putting up tents.
  7. Providing the small things that are easily forgotten – bug repellent, hand sanitizer etc.
  8. Excellent cooks.

 

We’d advise…

So if you’re itching to head out into the hills, and see what the real New Zealand is all about, we reckon your best bet is to do so with a local guide. The best advice we can give you though, is to embrace the whole experience, trust in your guides, and keep in mind that it’s sharing these experiences that makes them special. Head for the hills willing to share your space, and your stories, because it’s the story that you’ll remember long after you’ve taken your boots off.

Check Out Our Guided Trips

Other relevant information:

Killing Time in a Backcountry Hut

It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that around 30% of New Zealand is public land, and a lot of it covered by 18 incredible National Parks. What you may not know, though, is that there are over 950 back country huts throughout the country (accessible to the public). They come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of ‘luxury’ and charm.

Some of these – the most charming of the lot – date back to the 1800s and are the foundation for our Kiwi love affair with the ‘back country hut’.

There’s so many memories tied up in these huts. So many friendships forged, heroes born and, probably, people conceived! There is a certain routine that happens – it’s a totally enjoyable routine that to a kiwi usually ‘just happens’ without thought – like foraging for dry wood. And in between this routine there’s time to kill and fun to be had.

So we came up with an idea. Let’s break down the routine and also give you a few ideas for how to create uncontrollable laughter and grins from ear to ear, in a backcountry hut (you could supplement that for tea house, tent, refugio and so on!)

Here’s the routine…

Tired legs turn the last bend along the trail, only to discover that it is in fact not the last bend and the trail continues to meander along the valley floor. This goes on for a while until the ‘real’ last bend rewards you with the welcoming site of shelter.

Angelus Hut
And there it is, our home for the night! Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Spirits lift and energy comes seemingly from nowhere. Enough even, to scrounge for dry firewood on the approach to the hut.

You ease your pack off tired shoulders, a pack heavier than it needs to be, with a bladder of red wine. You hang up your hiking poles and examine your toes out of your boots. 

Boots at a Backcountry Hut
Boots drying after a day’s hiking

Damp boots and socks now lay resting next to the sizzling wood fire. No one cares about the odor. It’s worth it.

Food is a priority. Everyone chips in – or maybe it’s someone’s turn and you’re lucky enough to put your legs up. At any rate, snacks arrive quick smart.

Backcountry Hut Food
Hut food is the best!

Dinner happens. It’s epic. You look around the room in the aftermath to flushed faces, enjoying the warmth from their hearty meal, their home-made mulled wine and the glow from the fire – your new best friend.

Backcountry Hut Glow
Backcountry Hut Glow

You lie snug in your sleeping bag listening to the old guard wax lyrical with hero stories. In this particular story the old guard was a NYC fireman sharing riveting, ‘real’ stories, better than any Hollywood movie. Rain tipper-tapers on the roof lulling you away to the best sleep you’ve had in ages. 

OK, so all that happens. That stuff needs to happen. That’s basic survival stuff really. Shelter, food, rest. But what about the other stuff. The fun that happens spontaneously. Well, there’s no harm in having a few tricks up your sleeve. Here’s our favourites:

Spoons

This really is a classic, and we’d like to think it’s an Active speciality. And the best part is, you’re guaranteed to have spoons with you (if you don’t, something has gone terribly wrong!). The game is simple really – place a number of spoons on a table (1 less than the amount of people playing) and make sure they’re evenly spaced so everyone sitting around the table can reach one. Grab a full pack of shuffled cards and deal 4 cards to each player. Nominate someone to draw a card off the top of the face down deck so they have 5 cards in their hand – they need to discard one and they’re trying to get 4 of a kind. They’ll discard a card and then pick another – the quicker they do this, the faster-paced the game and the more exciting it becomes. The first person to get 4 of a kind grabs a spoon and then everyone has to grab one. The person who misses out on a spoon is OUT. If you go for a spoon before you’ve got 4 of a kind you’re out. Faking is allowed though, most definitely, as long as you don’t touch the spoon! Here’s a short video of a recent spoons game on an Active trip, in this case not a backcountry hut, but you get the idea!

Star gazing

So you’re going to need a nice, clear night for this. If you’re really lucky you might be on our ‘Winter Rimu‘ trip, relaxing in the natural hot springs at Welcome Flat, on the Copland Track. It’s a dreamy experience to lay under the stars and listen to the natural sounds of the forest, whilst you rest your tired legs. It’s also a pretty special way to bond together as a group.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing from a NZ backcountry hut

Uno

More colourful than your average card game, essentially it’s all about getting rid of  your cards. Each suit has a colour (red, yellow, blue or green) and a number. Like a normal game of cards, you’ll follow the circle around and place a card from the 7 in your hand, onto the pile (so long as it’s the same number OR colour as the previously laid card).  The tactics begin when you change the colour to suit yourself (by laying the same number in a different colour) or by throwing down a ‘wild card’…  Sprinkled through the pack are ‘specialty cards’ which could either mean your neighbour has to pick up another 2, 4 or even 8 new cards to add to their hand, skip their go or switch the direction of play – which may or may not make you some new friends and enemies! Once you’re down to a single card in your hand, you have to shout ‘UNO!’ and the first person to lay down their final card wins. Pick up the pace, add a few more rules to the game and you’ve got yourself an evening of fun as well as a great way to make some new hut-friends (unless you screw them over…!).

Meet the wildlife

Many of our backcountry huts are situated in beautiful alpine environments, so when you visit one of these huts you’ll be sharing your home with the Kea, an endemic South Island parrot. The kea is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape. It’s a highlight for many, to sit and watch as inquisitive Kea fly around the hut. Just make sure your belongings are inside and please don’t feed them!

Kea
Endemic NZ Alpine Parrot – the Kea

Build a dam

Assuming you have some energy left. There’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a stream’s river flow. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Unleash the engineer within and get to work! A dam, with 100% no end goal, is a beautiful thing.

Bananagrams

It’s the “anagram game that will drive you bananas!” If you’re OK about calling out ‘Peel’, ‘Split’ and ‘Bunch’ in a public hut, and judged accordingly, this game is for you.

Look for glow worms

You’ll need a local guide for this. Coerce them into an evening tour and go to find some glow worms. It’s like star gazing but you don’t need to crane your neck!

NZ Glow worms
NZ Glow worms. Image courtesy of nz-trip.com

Whittle a walking stick

So you’ve built a dam and you’ve still got some energy. It must be the middle of summer and the days are long, allowing for extra MacGyver time. You’ll need a good bush knife for this and remember to whittle away from you, not towards your body! Don’t cut down our native tress either, please find a tree that’s already fallen down naturally. A Lancewood would do the trick. Oh, and be careful about trying to take your new walking stick through customs on your homeward journey…

Bush rummy

You’ll need at least two packs of cards for this game and any number of players. It would take a whole post to explain the rules of bush rummy, so you’re going to need a resident expert within your group. Essentially though, it’s based off gin rummy, but once you go past the first round you can place cards down at any time – you don’t have to wait your turn. So like many of the games listed here, it can get pretty crazy!

Country-themed sing along

One of the brilliant surprise elements of a backcountry hut experience is the mix of people you’ll be sharing your evening with. It’s like the fun part of flatting, without the hassle of having to do it day in/day out. You’ll always find some banter, whether it be around sport, politics or pop culture. And if you’ve got a merry crowd you might just get into a good old fashioned sing-along – so bring along a ukulele if you have one (and can carry it)!

Tantrix

We had to include this game – it’s from New Zealand! Tantrix is “the world’s most twisted puzzle game!” So what is it exactly? It’s a hexagonal tile-based abstract game. Huh? There are 56 tiles in a set, each containing 3 lines going from one edge of the tile to the other. The aim is to use the tiles to create the longest line or loop. It’s probably best if you invite Miriam along on your next backcountry hut adventure – she’s our resident Tantrix expert.

Tantrix Backcountry Hut games
Tantrix – we thought you’d need a photo to understand it!

Cards against humanity

If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.

Kiwi Home Cooked Meals

Get ready for a metaphor…

It takes all the right ingredients to bake a cake.

Home Cooked Meals
Active Adventures NZ guide Ken on the BBQ

Is this a really bad metaphor? I think so. But sometimes a cliché is a cliché for a good reason (is that cliché?). Thing is, I couldn’t think of a better way to sum up the role that food plays in an adventure in a far away place, or an adventure anywhere for that matter. And people take their food preferences, and meal experiences VERY seriously. I know I do. My own maniacal pickiness when it comes to food is one of the reasons why we pay close attention to preparing home cooked meals on an Active Adventures trip. Life is too short to eat average food, so why do it on the trip of a lifetime? Lets get that cake baked perfectly.

But it’s not just taste that contributes to a food experience while on a wilderness adventure in New Zealand. It’s the source, the preparation time, location, care and personalised attention to detail leading to your plate that makes every bite feel earned, valued and appropriate for where you are, in that moment. There are a few ingredients that we’ve stuck to over the years, that are still making the “Active Adventures Cake” a winner. Here’s what our thinking was, and still is…

The back country is never an obstacle

You’ll be forgiven for thinking that entering the backcountry or wilderness for a few days = cutting back on the creature comforts. To a degree, that’s right. We all know that a sandwich or a slice of chocolate tastes THAT much better when you’re out hiking, biking or paddling. But why limit ourselves to a few little treats? We’ve always made sure that carrying a couple of extra ingredients or items means that we’ll eat like kings every meal. There’s nothing like sitting in a back country hut in Nelson Lakes National Park, looking up to the Angeles Mountain range, and devouring a delicious meal cooked by your guide. There’s a difference between good and amazing.

Kiwi Home Cooked Dessert
Active Adventures NZ Guide Eli, with her home cooked pavlova

It’s personal

We’ve all been there – you’ve been invited to dinner somewhere, you haven’t discussed your food preferences (not your food needs – we’ll get to that!), and then you’re served black bean pie and brussel sprouts (I HATE beans). You get the picture. It’s uncomfortable, awkward and puts a downer on the evening. Unless dessert is a perfect lemon tart.
The point is, we’re generally picky, to a greater or lesser degree. And we should make no apologies for that. That’s why a home cooked meal, combined with knowing what you like before you join us on a trip here in New Zealand, goes a long way. We’ve seen all sorts of weird and wonderful food preferences over the years, so if peanut butter, cheese and chilli sauce on toast is something you just can’t do without at 10pm at night, then that’s no worries. Yes – that’s true, someone really did want that.

We make the most of being a young nation

New Zealand is arguably one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world, meaning we’ve opened our doors not only to creating a culturally diverse little county, but a gastronomically diverse one at that. That’s not to say that we’ll mix a chicken vindaloo with an enchilada and serve it up at the end of a great days hiking (although that might just work!), but we’re able to bring all the influences from our diverse culture and mix things up a bit to make things “fusion kiwi!”

Kiwi Hospitality
Picnic Lunch, Active Style!

It’s about the love of food

I don’t know about you, but to me there’s something that always seems to be missing when I get a meal from a restaurant and I can’t see the kitchen. I’ll always prefer a restaurant where there is an open kitchen. You can see the flair, energy and passion that goes into the preparation of your meal, and so it’s all put into context, as opposed to it seeming to magically appear 20 minutes after you ordered. It’s better for the chef too. When you join us in New Zealand, expect to hang out in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand, chew the fat with your guide as they prepare dinner, observe the attention to detail, love of the task at hand, and then sit down and share the stories of the activities of the day as they see you enjoying the meal they’ve prepared.

Why ask to see the chef to compliment him or her, when they’re right there, enjoying their meal with you?

Home Cooked Dessert
Active Adventures’ Master Chef

– Phil, Active Adventures Director